Friday, April 17, 2020

Busta Scene: Getting Past Hard-to-Write Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Getting stuck in a scene can bring your whole writing session (and novel) to a screeching halt. Here are tips on how to move forward so you aren’t stuck forever.

The image of the writer who sits down at the keyboard and writes for hours on end is a nice picture, but writing doesn’t always work that way. Some days the writing flows fast and smooth, but there are just as many days when we struggle for every word. Most probably fall somewhere in between, with bursts of writing mixed with starts and stops as we figure out a scene or even a paragraph.

And then there are the scenes that slam on the creative brakes and crash our entire momentum.

Hard-to-write scenes happen to us all, but it doesn’t mean we’re blocked or that our story is doomed. It just means we’ve hit a snag for some reason.

(Here’s more on What to Do When You Really Don’t Want to Write That Scene)

Here Are 5 Things to Try When You get Stuck in a Hard-to-Write Scene

Figure out what’s missing from the scene.

When I get stuck like in a scene, it's usually because I'm missing a key element to move forward. I don't know my stakes, I've lost sight of my protagonist's goal, I don't know how someone else in the scene feels or what they'd do in that situation. This missing piece is central to the scene itself if not the book.

Break it down and ask:
  • What does my protagonist want here?
  • What are they trying to do?
  • What's in their way?
  • Why is this scene important?
  • What do I want the reader to learn? To feel? To worry about?
  • Why does this matter to the overall story?
Usually, these questions will shake loose the missing piece and you’ll realize what needs to be fixed/added/reworked to finish the scene and move forward. If not…

Step back and give yourself time to let the scene simmer. The subconscious is pretty good at working out story problems if you give it a chance. Sometimes all we need is time to let it work through the problem.

(Here’s more on The Perils of Not Knowing What Happens Next in Your Story)

Determine if you even need that scene.

I’ve also gotten stuck when I flat out didn’t like the scene. Maybe I was going in the wrong direction, or I dropped the tension.

These types of “blocks” are our subconscious telling us there’s a problem.
  • Is this scene no longer needed?
  • Did something happen to make this scene irrelevant now?
  • Did the plot change too much?
  • Does this scene setup something that’s no longer in the book or relevant to the book?
It’s also possible the scene is just boring and you know it, so you know it’s also going to bore the reader. If this is the problem, go back to where the story still feels exciting and head in a new direction.

(Here’s more on An Easy Tip for Getting Unstuck in a Scene)

Write past it and keep going.

I’m a linear writer, so skipping a scene is harder for me. I need to know what happens before I can more forward. But there are times when skipping a scene and returning to it later is exactly what you need to do.

Sometimes what a hard-to-write scene needs is something you haven’t gotten to in the story yet. Maybe it will foreshadow a future moment, or the decision here will have huge ramifications later, but until you write that later scene, this scene won’t work.

(Here’s more on A Tip for Getting Through Hard-to-Write Scenes)

Look at the end of the scene.

I’ve had scenes that went on and on and on because I knew what the scene was about from an author perspective—I knew what I wanted to have happen in it and why—but I didn’t know how this scene was going to move the story forward.

Some scenes go on forever because you aren’t sure how to end them. That’s often a stakes or conflict issues, because nothing happens in the scene to create the necessary change to advance the plot. Figure out how to end it, and how that transitions into the next scene, and the scene moves forward.

(Here’s more on Don’t Know How to End Your Scene? Here’s Why.)

Maybe you just need a break.

Being stuck might not have anything to do with the scene at all. We all have days when we just don't feel creative. This happens to me when I've been in a major writing spurt and spending a lot of time at the keyboard. I'm on the verge of burning myself out, so my muse goes on strike.

But losing the muse can take many forms, from exhaustion, to stress, to personal distractions. Life happens, and that can dampen our creative fires and leave us unable to write.

Take a few days off and refill your creative well. Read, play, relax, get active, whatever helps you decompress and reinvigorate yourself. When you get back to writing, odds are you’ll know what to do next in that scene.

(Here’s more on When Your Muse is Missing in Action)

Regardless of the issue, if you’re still stuck after a day or two, then sit at the desk and force yourself to write something to get past it. Whatever you write might be bad, or read like notes instead of a scene, but once you start writing, the sticking point usually gives way and the story gets back on track. You can always go back later and clean it up.

Hard-to-write scenes aren’t fun, but they aren’t the end of your manuscript. With a little brainstorming, rest, or brute force, you can move past them and get your novel back on track.

What helps you when you hit a hard-to-write scene?

*Originally published May 2009. Last updated April 2020.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Haha, I hope you ended up getting through your paragraphs. I took your advice and just plowed through and wrote some pretty horrid paragraphs and it totally jogged my creative brain and made me realize that I'd lost sight of my protag's goal, like you said earlier, so thanks for a great post as usual! :)

  2. Janice -- I need more advice! Shockingly, thrillingly, an agent is reading my full. I still have a dozen queries out to other agents. Should lightning strike again and a different agent request a full, do I mention that one is currently being reviewed? Thanks in advance.

  3. Grats Beth! That's fantastic. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you. Opinions vary, but I felt it was only polite to let any agents reading a full know others were also reading it.

    And Shorty, most welcome :)I did indeed get through my paragraphs. Glad you did too!

  4. Congrats, Beth. Hope it works out well for you. I've got a question Janice. It's about characters. How far do we have to go when creating a character's appearance (looks, eye colour, clothes, blah blah) and personality? I find that I give "personality" greater preference, because I feel that's how I can get readers to connect with my characters. Am I wrong in this assumption?

  5. Glen, I'm with you and I don't like to do a lot of "police blotter" description either (eyes, hair, build, etc). Some readers love knowing those details though, so I do try to add enough to keep everyone happy. As most things with writing, you have to be true to yourself and write what feels right to you. This is a good topic so I'll do more on it later as well :)

  6. oh thanks, I look forward to reading it. By the way, fantastic website!

  7. I get a lot of ideas for scenes, dialogue etc, when I'm out walking. A few months ago while totally stuck on where my plot was going, and getting nowhere looking at the computer screen I decided to push this creative walking thing - it helped that it was a beautiful day! I went out for a long walk specifically thinking about the characters, plot etc and came up with the way forward. It was like magic, and I was amazed.

    On the subject of characters and descriptions. I make description lists of the main characters for my own use,but don't add much of it into the manuscript (contemporary novels seem to go for less character description), as like Glen I prefer to show characters through personality and what they do. But interestingly my two beta readers said they'd like a little more description. Can't win huh!

  8. Shana: When I get really stuck, I take a hot shower and wash my hair. I think it's like a brain massage and gets it working again.

    I'd barely put any description in if it were up to me, but my betas ask for the same thing. So now I add some. Different folks like different things ;)

  9. Great post. For me, getting stuck usually happens because I feel like a certain scene needs to be particularly well written, and that can be intimidating.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  10. Sarah: Thanks! It really can be intimidating, but no one has to see those first words but you :) It's okay if the scene is blah until you get it right. No one has to know.

  11. Typo: I also get stuck is when I just flat out don't like the scene.

    1. Thanks for letting me know! I try my best to catch them, but I speak fluent typo :)